Back in 2018, I learned about photographer burnout the hard way. At the time, my photography business was still new and I did not have a clear direction for it yet. This led to taking on too many jobs, trying to do it all, and then eventually to burnout... and shingles. Looking back, this was a (not so fun) life changing experience for me. It was a wake up call that something needed to change.
I like to share this personal story when I can so that others can learn from my mistakes instead of living through it themselves. While the techniques I use to maintain my mental health and productivity are probably nothing new, I hope this article reinforces how important they are. This year I successfully made it through my busiest season of my career without any burn out, so I wanted to share how I accomplished that!
The Backstory: Burnout, Not The Cool Kind
It was 2018 and I was about to board a flight to Vancouver to attend Arc Experience, my first ever photography workshop. Something on my back felt like it was on fire, as if I was stung over and over by an angry wasp.
When I looked in the mirror, I knew immediately what it was. Shingles. I had seen shingles before on a co-worker and my sister. It classically followed a nerve path along my torso and hurt like a mother. I could not wear my backpack properly or lean back on the blisters because they were so sensitive. I knew that shingles is often brought on by stress, but I had a photography workshop to attend and a job to finish on the plane, so onward I went. I'd be fine.
I was a year into my photography business and also had two other jobs at the time. I was just coming out of a busy summer trying to make it all work. The four day workshop was packed with lectures, challenges, exercises, and events. I stayed with a group of photographers, met new people at the event, and went out at night with new friends. During presentations and in the evenings, I worked on a massive photography job I was trying to finish. I accidentally underquoted for that job and was not going to make any money to pay myself after completing it. Then to finish off the workshop, everyone dressed up and had a massive late night party at the club.
This is just a small snippet of what my lifestyle used to look like. I am proud of myself for starting and launching a business, but wish I took a bit better care of myself along the way. Can you how I was on a destructive and unsustainable path to burnout?
The Big Personal Things
At some point shortly after this, I thankfully had a moment of clarity amongst the exhaustion. I knew it was important to me to prioritize my health and relationships over work, I just didn't know how to do that. I checked myself into therapy and began a self-improvement journey. This journey began in 2018 and still continues today.
My life felt chaotic like I was treading water and I was exhausted all the time. I was still dealing with the grief of losing my dad, I wasn't being a productive business owner, I hadn't spent time with my best friends or my husband, and definitely hadn't checked in with myself in ages. It was clear that I was going in too many directions at once and experiencing personal and photographer burnout.
At first, therapy was so hard. I imagined myself as a ten armed woman who could hold up all the different areas of her life better than anyone else. My therapist taught me that that was unrealistic and that it would feel much better to slow down. She encouraged me to be more thoughtful and to let most of those things go.
I spent time taking a hardcore inventory of my life and it turns out she was right. Slowly, I began to cut the unimportant things out of my life so I could focus on what I was good at and loved. That was only the beginning of my journey and I have been taking small steps toward a more peaceful, organized life since then.
Baby Steps, Baby
Fast forward to 2021 and my life is not perfect, but very different. As I wrote my June Newsletter this month, I realized I had successfully made it through the busiest month of my career with no burn out. Go me!
Yes I was tired and took a break afterward, but I was not burnt out. In my books, that is definitely something to be proud of.
As a family photographer, my business goes through highs and lows, busy and slow seasons. The majority of 2020 was a slow season for me thanks to the pandemic. Then as soon as the travel restrictions began to lift in June, work hit like a tidal wave. It seemed like everyone wanted to catch up on photo sessions they missed out on, plus my normal client load on top of that. At one point I clocked in 13 photo sessions in 14 days. Yet I was not burnt out, I was thriving.
So how did I make it through this busy season, accomplish more than ever, and maintain my routines and relationships? The old me would have been a mess. The new me focuses a lot of energy into building systems and creating routines that support me during busy times.
My Routines To Avoid Burnout
My best advice is that goals are accomplished with many consistent baby steps, not a few large soul crushing steps.
The first time I heard about this concept was in therapy. Then again during a workout program my husband and I signed up for. I believe that was how a large part of my growth started.
I would like to mention again that these are things you have probably heard about before, I did not reinvent the wheel of self care. Hopefully someone out there reads this and finds it helpful or feels less alone.
Here are some important concepts I incorporate into my life to avoid personal and photographer burnout:
- SMALL STEPS OFTEN — Many consistent small steps daily will take you farther than a few large soul crushing steps. Read the book Atomic Habits for more about this.
- ELIMINATE ONE STRESS AT A TIME — Figure out what stresses you out and work toward changing or eliminating these things. An example for me was monetary stress and limiting beliefs. Read any of Jen Sincero's books for more no BS tough love inspiration.
- THERAPY — I had no idea how much energy my unresolved emotions were taking from me. Therapy is hard but liberating, I highly recommend that every single person try it out.
- FOOD — My well being is highly related to the food I eat. It is really hard but I do my best not to eat like shit when I get busy. I am not perfect at this, you will definitely catch me at the ice cream shop. But I try to eat really well when possible to have th energy to work hard.
- YOGA — Any sort of consistent movement works wonders on me. I easily fall back into the mindset that if I don't do a full workout or a two hour bike ride, it's not worth it. Obviously, this is not true. Something I work hard on right now is to remind myself that doing a small yoga flow or a short walk every day is better than nothing.
- STOP COMPARING YOURSELF — I used to look at other photographers and wonder how they did it all and accomplished so much. What I didn't realize at the time was that they were five or ten years farther along in their career than me. Of course they had accomplished more, they had been doing it longer. I will get there one day and so will you. Small steps, remember?
- REST HARD — I work hard and rest hard. It took me some time to learn that taking rest days allows me to work harder on work days. Take consistent rest, guilt free.
- STRONG SYSTEMS + ROUTINES — For me, if something can be automated or broken down into a repeatable, manageable routine, I do it. Or if I can automate a work flow, I do that too. Strong work systems and automations save me so much brain power and keeps me on track when life gets busy. Here are some tools that I use to do this.
Patience, growth takes time
A lot has changed for me in the last 3.5 years, I am really proud of how far I have come.
There are still things I work on daily and times when everything falls apart. But I have found that I can notice more easily when things start to slide. As with anything, I don't have to work as hard now as I did in the beginning. My growth and new life feel a lot more intuitive now and come more naturally. I am honestly excited to see where I end up in another few years.
I want to know, have you ever experienced burnout? What happened to you and how did you come out of it? I'd love to hear your story in the comments below. Thanks for being here.